Interview with Mustafa al-Slaiman

"We Don't Translate Any Old Trash"

One book per million readers – that's how little is translated into Arabic every year. With financial support from the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, the Kalima Foundation hopes to tackle the translation drought in the Arab world. Silke Lode interviewed Mustafa al-Slaiman, Kalima's chief German translator

Mustafa al-Slaiman (photo: private copyright)
Mustafa al-Slaiman, a lecturer in simultaneous interpreting on the prestigious Germersheim translation studies programme at the University of Mainz, is the chief German translator and in charge of Kalima's largest programme section

​​ There are 250 million potential readers for books in Arabic, but there are still few translations, and Kalima publishes print runs of 2000 copies. Don't the Arabs like reading?

Mustafa al-Slaiman: No, of course Arabs read and that's why we're translating. The electronic media and television may have immense power, but these anti-reading conditions apply everywhere. The serious problem is the Arab book market. First of all, distribution: You can't order on the Internet because most places don't have regular postal addresses with street names. I came across this problem when I was buying translation rights.

In Germany, post office boxes are unacceptable for licence contracts, but nor can you write: "In the little road opposite the mosque next to the greengrocer". And another problem is the lack of good bookstores across the entire Arab world – you can count them on one hand.

Herta Müller's Everything I Possess I Carry with Me came out in Arabic just in time for the Nobel Prize award ceremony. Good choice!

Arabic books (photo: Hishaam Sidiqqi)
Intellectually isolated? Only very few great pieces of foreign writing are being translated into Arabic: the Kalima Foundation aims to revive the rich translation culture of the Arab world

​​Al-Slaiman: A good few friends advised me on putting together my list of titles for translation. First and foremost was Michael Maar, but other members of the German Academy of Language and Literature supported me too: the academy's president Klaus Reichert, Gustav Seibt and the children's book writer Ute Krause.

A look at the 100 titles for translation from German shows that the classics aren't in with a chance.

Al-Slaiman: In the past, there was a tendency to translate only the classics, and the young generation was forgotten. The rights were free or very inexpensive and people talk about the classics a lot. But they acted as if there were no contemporary German literature. We're hoping to fill that vacuum.

So Goethe, Lessing and Schiller have long since been available in Arabic?

Al-Slaiman: There are translations from German and some via intermediate languages like English and French. At some point I'm sure we'll need new translations out of the original German, but now's the time to leave the classics in peace. That takes time and research. A new translation has to be explained and commentated, like the German translator Klaus Reichert did with the Song of Solomon.

Your list includes the young writer Daniel Kehlmann alongside the very established Christa Wolf and the children's writer Otfried Preußler. What were your criteria?

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1828 painting by Joseph Karl Stieler (source: Wikipedia)
"Now's the time to leave the classics in peace": In the past, the young generation of German writers was severely neglected, says Mustafa al-Slaiman

​​ Al-Slaiman: Quality was our main concern. We don't translate any old trash. And we want to include all genres, not just novels and poetry. Plus, we want to show Arab readers how literary critics write about German literature, which is why we selected non-fiction books like Michael Maar's Leopards in the Temple and Burkhard Müller's Air Dogs. Philosophy and religion are other important areas.

More than half of the translated titles are books for children and young people. Is that an attempt to evade censorship?

Al-Slaiman: No, we have a lot to catch up on in the area. Literature for children and young people is a catastrophe in the Arab world. There are plenty of ideological and religious books, but few that are actually suitable for children. Childhood is the most important time to develop a love of reading. We want to offer children books written especially for them, so that they become passionate readers later on.

Have the Kalima titles been on sale in all Arab countries?

Al-Slaiman: There are books and texts that are critical towards the policy of the United Arab Emirates. And still these books are published and presented at Abu Dhabi Book Fair without censorship.

source: Kalima Foundation
"Literature for children and young people is a catastrophe in the Arab world": cover of the Arabic edition of Peter Härtling's Hirbel

​​Are you sometimes in two minds over your choices?

Al-Slaiman: No, not at all. We publish a lot of subjects that people don't necessarily expect in the Arab world. In Herta Müller's new book you can tell from the first page that the main character is homosexual. Or critique of religion. Elias Canetti writes in The Agony of Flies that God is still coming into existence – He didn't create the world, He's its inheritor. Not every Muslim agrees with that, and the second editor wanted to leave that paragraph out. We discussed the matter – and left it in.

Sometimes it's the writers who are most worried. The Turkish-German writer Emine Sevgi Özdamar suggested leaving a part of her Life Is a Caravanserei out, where someone sits on the toilet and insults God. The Arab publisher saw no reason to do so – he said it was there in the original so we'd keep it.

Every language is closely linked to culture. Words have many different connotations, sometimes with entire cultural concepts behind them. When do you have to spend particularly long looking for the right translation in Arabic?

Elias Canetti (photo: dpa)
"God inherited the earth": in Elias Canetti's The Agony of Flies God is still coming into existence. Kalima's portfolio includes several books that are critical of religion

​​Al-Slaiman: In one of Ute Krause's children's books the main character is a pig. Pigs play no role in Oriental literature whatsoever, not even for Christians and Jews. They're simply not present in everyday life. We got together with Ute Krause and changed the character into a donkey, leaving its characteristics unchanged. We had to change the pictures slightly – our tribute to the Arab readers. Otherwise we'd have run up against closed doors for the book from day one. Parents wouldn't buy a book about a pig.

How do you deal with names? Don't you lose a lot in children's books if you don't change them? – A name like 'Räuber Hotzenplotz' for example really conjures up a terrifying but clumsy robber.

Al-Slaiman: That's something I think a lot about, yes. In some cases we've tried to bring across characteristics. In Peter Härtling's Hirbel the German title gives you a bit of an idea about the boy himself. We renamed him Shakawa, a word from colloquial Egyptian. Everyone knows the word from films or newspapers, and it means a poor, downtrodden boy. In The Robber Hotzenplotz there's a janitor who drinks too much apple wine. It's not something Arab readers are familiar with, but I found the name Dabus in an old book, and everyone immediately understands he's an aggressive person with an unpleasant odour about him.

Can the linguistic hurdles be so high that translation becomes impossible?

Al-Slaiman: Every text has its own peculiarities that you have to come to terms with. Joachim Sartorius' love poem "Diana" was one of that kind. Literally translated, he writes: "I saw the world's back in the water." The back is a rather un-erotic part of the body in Arabic literature. Shoulders or feet are much more erotic. Simply looking or even retracting the gaze sounds more seductive in Arabic poetry than touching. These are just details, but if you translated "Diana" literally there would be nothing of its eroticism left.

The same applies the other way around, I've heard – for German readers, Arabic poetry often comes across as kitsch.

Al-Slaiman: A translator has a great deal of work to do before a poem arrives in the culture of the target language, particularly with very good poets. Since Brecht, the German language has become slightly drier, poor in metaphors. Arabic – like Russian or the Romance languages – has many more images. That's another reason why translation is a creative act. The lyrical Arabic rose has to have its own scent in German translation.

Interview: Silke Lode

© 2010

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

Editor: Lewis Gropp/

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